THEY'VE been mates for years, but until recently, Bill McKellar and Brendan Kenna had no idea they shared a connection that stretched far beyond the bonds of friendship.
Or that it would lead them on a journey of discovery from the Western District to a remote ghost town on the other side of the country.
So when they found themselves holding an impromptu graveside service, their wives standing beside them in the sandy red soil among the tombstones and unmarked burials of a forlorn, outback cemetery last winter, it was a moment both moving and surreal.
They were there to pay tribute to two pioneering ancestors whose dreams of adventure and riches turned to tragedy on the Murchison goldfields of Western Australia more than a century ago.
They happened 20 years apart but the stories of Frank Kenna and Frank McKellar are eerily similar.
Both Franks were from Ballangeich where their large families were friends, farming on neighbouring properties a kilometre apart; both were lured to the west in pursuit of adventure and the glint of gold; both were there with another Ballangeich relative and friend John "Jack" Irving; and both died lonely deaths from typhoid fever in the desolate outpost of Nannine just south of Meekatharra.
It's unlikely they ever met but in death they have shared a final resting place far from home for more than a century.
Brendan Kenna, 62, and his wife Julie still farm at Ellerslie, across the Hopkins River from the Ballangeich property where Francis 'Frank' Kenna was born in 1867, the second of Patrick and Bridget Kenna's 12 children. His young brother William was Brendan's grandfather.
The story of Brendan's great-uncle Frank's short life was a familiar one in the family.
He'd travelled to the diggings with his mate Jack Irving, working as contractors surveying a new railway line.
Just five months after he'd written home for Christmas of 1891, Frank died from typhoid, aged 25, on May 8, 1892, and was buried in a rudimentary grave in front of a local Nannine pub with a handful of other unfortunate souls before the town was gazetted the following year.
Newspaper articles at the time describe Nannine as being "alive with gold" although sickness was rife among the 700 to 800 diggers living in primitive conditions.
In October 1899 the Murchison Advocate reported that following concerns about interference by cattle and dogs, six burials, including Frank, were re-interred in a patch of ground marked at the corners by four stagecoach wheel axels at the "new" cemetery six kilometres away. None had a headstone.
Brendan's late father Laurie and his wife Clare, now 94, made several unsuccessful attempts in the 1980s to find his uncle Frank's grave.
What Brendan didn't know was that his old friend from Ballangeich, Bill McKellar, had a very similar family story to tell.
Born at Ballangeich in 1884 to John and Jean McKellar, Bill's uncle Francis John 'Frank' McKellar was one of four boys, including the youngest, Bill's father William, and four girls.
Following in the footsteps of his unfortunate neighbour, Frank's thirst for adventure led him west in 1908 to join his uncle Jack Irving on the diggings at Nannine, where at 27, he met the same fate, succumbing to typhoid in 1912.
Frank McKellar's grave just inside the Nannine cemetery gate bears a substantial marble headstone. A well-regarded young man, it was reported that nearly all the town's menfolk attended his funeral and all of its businesses closed as a mark of respect that day.
Sadly, Frank McKellar's death was only the first of three sons his parents would mourn within five years. His brothers Mitchell and Jack both died on the Western Front battlefields of World War I n 1917, leaving Bill's father William the only surviving son.
Jack Irving too was struck down by typhoid, but survived, later returning to the Ballangeich area, marrying late and living a quiet life into old age, according to Bill who remembers him as an old man.
It was purely by chance a few years ago that Bill and Brendan learned of their similar family stories.
Bill and his wife Margie, along with Brendan and Julie had already travelled together to France in 1917 to pay homage to Bill's soldier uncles, so with the latest intriguing discovery, a trip to the west in remembrance of the two Franks was in order.
That was 2019 and COVID-19 soon derailed their travel plans. It was only last July they were finally able to make the trip.
With their GPS guiding them to the site of the unmarked Nannine cemetery, the couples had little trouble locating the prominent McKellar headstone where Bill gave a brief and very personal service.
A short poem composed by Bill was read, soil from Ballangeich was sprinkled and a fob watch and wallet belonging to Frank placed on the grave.
"It was quite emotional," said Bill, 83, and now retired to Warrnambool. "I knew Dad had never gone over there, so I thought, I've got to pay homage to Frank.
"I felt like I had done my duty." His pilgrimages to the final resting places of his three uncles was complete.
As I stand beside your lonely grave I am proud to say I have travelled all this way To pay my due To an uncle that I never knew.- Bill McKellar's poem dedicated to his uncle Frank
Without a headstone, Brendan and Julie had little expectation of finding Frank Kenna's final resting place. That was until they spotted, not five metres away, the four axels described as marking the corners of the 1899 reburial site.
"When we found the axels in the ground, it was emotional for all of us," Brendan said.
"I never really thought that we would find it.
"We felt very privileged because we were able to do what Mum and Dad wanted to do, to recognise Frank. He died in such tragic circumstances; he deserves to be remembered."
Brendan and Julie affixed a small plaque on the likely gravesite, however, it was removed after being deemed unauthorized.
The couple are now in discussions with the Meekatharra Shire, which controls the Nannine cemetery, to have a permanent plaque erected recognising the final resting place of Frank and all of those buried in unmarked graves.
The shire undertook a drone survey of the cemetery before Christmas, 2023.